All goes wrong for Harden in return to OKC

OKLAHOMA CITY — Kendrick Perkins ran the break, Derek Fisher made a contested 3-pointer, Kevin Durant drew a charge on his old pal James Harden, dogs jumped rope at halftime and another fan made another $20,000 half-court shot.

Everything went right for the Thunder against Houston in their first playoff game as the defending Western Conference champs, and if Sunday was supposed to be about Oklahoma City vs. its former favorite son Harden, well, that didn’t exactly come off.

Harden brought the storyline and the motivation, and of course the beard, but he and the Rockets didn’t bring much else.

The Thunder won 120-91 and with it brought a sense of domination that made it unacceptable to believe Houston can win this series. It’s a 1-0 lead, but Sunday seemed like a technical fall, a tap-out by the Rockets as they benched their own starters in the fourth quarter in mock surrender.
 
Maybe Houston should have considered that idea earlier. Harden was bad, but if he wasn’t such a trending topic of conversation thanks to his close-as-blood ties to Oklahoma City, we’d be talking about the hot garbage that disguised itself as the Rockets’ boxscore.

Jeremy Lin was 1 for 7 with four turnovers. Starter Greg Smith had a plus-minus of minus-34. Houston was 8 for 36 on 3-pointers, started 1 of 10 from the floor and limped off shooting 36 percent for the game.

The game was tied at 40-40 in the second quarter before the Thunder went on a 75-40 run. The result meant a third win in four tries this season against the Rockets.

“We locked in,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “Our defensive energy was good from start to finish. They did a good job of following the game plan and playing as hard as you can play.”

Oklahoma City did what it wanted, easily and often, so much so that Harden didn’t even play the last 10 minutes of the game and the stands emptied out early on a late, late Sunday night in Oklahoma City.

“James on this team has to shoulder a ton of responsibility,” Houston coach Kevin McHale said. “He’s been great all year long. You know, he’ll play better. We ask him to do an awful lot for us. I think that he had it going for a little bit, but it wasn’t James, it was us as a team. We never caught a flow.”

A season ago Harden was ever-popular in the Thunder’s run to the playoffs, but this time around, the fans parlayed cheering their own with a hearty mix of booing Harden. He finished just 6 of 19 from the floor and now is a combined 9-of-35 shooting in his two games in Oklahoma City this season.

“We didn’t have a rhythm as a team,” Harden said. “A lot of guys were kind of shell-shocked.”

Maybe so, but Harden wasn’t exactly a calming influence Sunday. As much as Lin and Smith and even Chandler Parsons (4-of-11 shooting) came undone, Harden is the one who is expected to be a given. He finished his All-Star season averaging 25.9 points per game and played Sunday like it was on him to shoot the Rockets to a win. When it didn’t happen, the rest of the bunch fell in line.

“As we know, he’s a very good player,” Brooks said of Harden. “We wanted to make his catches very tough. There’s no secrets about it. He’s one of their guys who puts them in position to be a good team. We wanted to form a wall. It’s not a one-man defense. It’s all five guys. I thought our defense was outstanding.”

That’s Brooks putting up his hands before anyone suggests this series is about beating Harden. It’s about getting a step closer to the next round and a step closer to playing for an NBA championship. That’s what Durant and Westbrook and the rest of the team will say, but you just know Sunday had to feel good as OKC squelched any chance of Harden as hero.

“It felt a little awkward looking across and seeing him with another team,” Durant admitted. “He wants to win so bad. We know how hard he competes. It was a little different, but hey, we have to move on and we’ll see how it plays out.”

For now, it’s playing out exactly like any lay person would have guessed. Predictably. Durant had 24 points, Westbrook had 19 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds. Serge Ibaka was a game-changer on defense and had 17 points, seven rebounds and three blocks. Kevin Martin had 16 points off the bench and the team shot 53 percent. Throw in the fact the Thunder had fewer turnovers, more rebounds, more assists, more energy and more experience.

Oklahoma City also had a sellout crowd of 18,203. About the only thing that didn’t go right was Durant’s family sitting courtside, but choosing not to wear the freebie t-shirt that was provided.

“That’s my fault,” Durant said with a smile. “I got to get on them. They have to participate.”

Everyone else did, and if Game 2 goes anything like Game 1 did Sunday, and anything remotely close to what the Thunder have done this season against Houston (scoring 119 points or more in all four games), there’s really no reason to start speculating Houston can be competitive over the next week or so.

And it really won’t matter what James Harden does.


Follow Andrew Gilman on Twitter @theandrewgilman